Twas the Night Before
nytheatre.com review by J Jordan
December 16, 2006
One never knows what one is going to get when seeing a show at downtown's ultra-hip Flea Theater, but one is certainly in for something. One also never knows what one is going to get from a group of ten-minute plays based on one of the Christmas holiday's simple phrases ("'twas the night before..."), especially from the likes of such well-known authors as Christopher Durang and Mac Wellman. Both are presented in fine, fine form here. My husband was eager to see the piece by Len Jenkin, whom he describes as creating very intimate pieces. Add these fine author ingredients to the likes of Elizabeth Swados and Roger Rosenblatt and one simply can't go that wrong. Even if one did, the pieces are too short to provide any real discomfort.
The set opens with Not a Creature Was Stirring, the Durang piece, wherein his now archetypal family parade their dysfunctionality during the tyrannical father's retelling of the famous "'Twas the night before..." poem, claiming it as his own. If you've ever seen anything written by Durang you will not be surprised by any of the hilarity that takes place on stage...except for maybe one thing, which I can't tell you as it will totally spoil the fun. And fun is what this piece is all about. I just about fell out of my chair during this first show from the laughter. If you want a hint as to what happens, just pay very special, literal attention to the liner notes for this show (see above). If you don't find the show hilarious, you will at least be confused, and that's just as well.
Next up is Away In The Manger by Roger Rosenblatt, featuring Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, to name a few. It's a pretty funny rendering of the nativity scene during which poor Mary, who is about to give birth, is forced to share airtime with an innkeeper given over to the consumerism of the holidays, some annoyingly happy carolers (whose smiles appear to have been shellacked to pink faces glowing with holiday spirit), and her, uh, boyfriend, Joseph (they're dating, he reminds us) who is a carpenter by trade but really sees himself as a stand-up comic. I need not say much more about this piece—after all, it is only ten minutes long—except that at one point the stage becomes a little too crowded for everyone, audience and Mary included. At the end of the piece, once everyone but she and Joseph disappear, they share a truly wonderful, quiet little moment on stage. It was not perhaps the most earned moment I've seen, but it was very, very real to me, and that counts for everything.
Following these first two lighter pieces is Before The Before And Before by Mac Wellman, who is anything but light. Wellman, in true form if I've ever seen it, has decided not to go with the Christmas theme but rather deconstruct the very notion of the word "before." What results is a mixed bag. His writing, as usual, is nearly flawless, a work of very strange art. I am loathe to say, however, that the actors and director may have taken the text a little too literally and, although at times funny, didn't capitalize on its absurdism. Perhaps it was because I saw this piece around 11pm, but, although I normally enjoy absurdist theater, this piece wasn't for me. Much of the audience seemed to revel in it, however, so you'll have to see for yourself. It was a nice change of pace from the other two, but I felt like more than ten minutes was needed to flesh out what was really happening. This piece too had a beautiful moment involving candles that gave it real warmth.
Next up is Christmas Song by Len Jenkin. I am not familiar with Mr. Jenkin's work, but looked forward to it nonetheless after the stage was transformed into the real-life setting of an old boarding house tattered almost as much as the lives of its inhabitants. This piece takes place on Christmas Eve, where the house's owner knits a bright blue scarf for a husband who died ten years ago, a quack doctor (the title is honorary, he informs us) prepares what could be his last Christmas dinner, and a painfully young prostitute with a serious illness has a penchant for the strong stuff. In its quiet simplicity, this play reminds us just how lonely the holidays can be. Amidst the cacophony of the other pieces fluttering around it, Christmas Song seemed almost too intimate, and the subtle climax could easily be missed if one was still laughing about the Durang piece. Luckily, the fine actor David Skeist, who plays "Dr." Peccado, raptly held my attention. Each of these pieces has a jewel in it, and in Christmas Song Skeist shines.
Holiday Movies, composed, written, and directed by Elizabeth Swados, rounds out the bunch by nicely bookending the hilarity that started the evening. The best word to describe this piece is one that Swados may well have uttered herself after all her hard work: Whew! There's singing and dancing and choreography and a great score, and elves and wrapping paper and a diaper with tinsel on it and jelly donuts and blood, blood, blood!!! (Well, at least references to it). I'm not sure how it was all packaged into such a short little performance but don't see how I could've sustained much more excitement. I didn't quite follow this piece, although it has something to do with how blockbuster movies are ruining Christmas and I think the general public. That said I enjoyed it immensely, thanks in no small part to the Ensemble, who do most of the singing, dancing, etc. Each one thankfully gets a line or two to share with us which they deliver with enthusiasm and aplomb.
Despite the late hour and not fully understanding every part of each piece, I was left wanting more. Like holiday ornaments—tacky, whimsical, at times very beautiful and thought-provoking—when given the context of a Christmas tree these five shows make for an interesting and enjoyable whole. And, by the way, I am still laughing over Not A Creature Was Stirring.